Robert Wilson Ryals Sr. was born on August 11, 1924, in Fayetteville, N.C., to Eddie R. and Margaret R. Ryals. Eddie Ryals was a veteran of World War I, and worked for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. In 1930, the Ryals family relocated to Rocky Mount, N.C.
In 1942, Robert Ryals graduated from high school, and enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. Ryals volunteered for paratrooper training upon his enlistment in the U.S. Army, and was assigned to the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in November 1942. He attended basic training at Camp Toccoa in Stephens County, Georgia, then jump training at Fort Benning, Georgia. After jump training, Ryals’ regiment was assigned to the Airborne Command at Camp Mackall, N.C. While stationed at Camp Mackall, the 501st Parachute Regiment participated in maneuvers in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Louisiana.
In January 1944, the regiment deployed to England from Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts. Upon their arrival in England, the 501st Parachute Regiment was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. On June 5, 1944, the regiment participated in the Invasion of Normandy during the D-Day operations, landing near Carentan, France, hours prior to the seaborne landing on the beaches of Normandy. Ryals saw combat in Normandy, then returned with his regiment to England in mid-July 1944.
In September 1944, Ryals participated in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands. After 72 days of combat in the Netherlands, the 101st Airborne Division moved to Mourmelon, France. In December 1944, the regiment fought in defense of Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. Ryals was in Mourmelon, France, when he learned of the German surrender in May 1945. The 501st Parachute Regiment remained in France to prepare for the invasion of Japan; upon surrender of Japan in August 1945 the regiment was disbanded.
When he returned to the United States, Ryals was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., and later Fort Benning. He married Gladys Joyce Duke on September 14, 1946, in Nash County, N.C. Ryals would serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
He retired from the U.S. Army in 1973. Ryals reached the rank of Command Sergeant Major during his military service. Robert W. Ryals died on February 7, 2011, in Southern Pines, and was interred in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Ryals is interred at Arlington in Columbarium 7-WW, Column 5, Niche 6.